East Campus Public Forum Builds Hype, Leaves Questions

Around 150 people filled the bleachers in Ritchie Coliseum on Tuesday night to learn about what the Cordish Companies and the Design Collective (C-DC) plan to do with East Campus. There was a mix of anticipation and weariness, as many in the audience were veterans of the ultimately aborted East Campus planning process led by Foulger-Pratt (FP).

Did the new guys in town have better ideas? Had they done their homework? Do they have what it takes to get the project off the ground this time around? The answer is a definite “maybe.” C-DC have a good track record and some clear ideas of what they want to do, but their plans remain embryonic and it is not clear how much thought has gone into the unique features of College Park and the East Campus location.

If you’re new to this process, or if your memory is as shaky as mine, you might want to check out RTCP’s digest of East Campus articles and RTCP’s list of East Campus talking points. And, check back soon for conceptual drawings (we hope!). Read on for more specifics.

The forum was led by Blake Cordish, vice president of the company that his great grandfather founded. Together with two colleagues from C-DC he gave a brief presentation on the background of the company and the goals for the project. Most of the goals were fairly familiar: building a sense of community, integrated architecture, mixed-use, pedestrian and transit friendly, etc.

Most revealing were some pointed criticisms of the plans that Foulger-Pratt had developed for the project. This gave the clearest insight into what C-DC sees as most important. The presentation was rather short, and most of the forum was used for break out discussions with C-DC staff – the kind with slick posters and easels where people can write about their pet peeves or favorite wine bar.

Cordish Companies and the Design Collective are closely related Baltimore companies that have coordinated redevelopment projects locally and around the country, some much smaller than East Campus, others somewhat larger. Some of their work can be found here; it includes the Inner Harbor Power Plant in Baltimore, a small but effective redevelopment on the Johns Hopkins Campus, and larger projects such as Kansas City’s Power and Light District. A note: The company has an alarming habit of naming developments “X” Live!” At least 5 projects have the same name. Let’s hope that this won’t turn into “Route 1 Live!”

Like Foulger-Pratt, Cordish emphasized that the company owns and manages most projects that they have developed. This is reassuring, as it encourages long-term investment. Cordish claimed that the long-term strategy made it attractive for them to use high-quality building materials, suggesting an upgrade over the materials in the Foulger-Pratt plans. Cordish said that his team’s goal is to change the way that people perceive the area, and they would like to create a “nationally acclaimed” college town development.

The scope of the new project is smaller than the earlier FP plans. It includes the north part of East Campus, covering all of the area to the north of Rossborough Lane, plus one line of buildings on the south side of Rossborough Lane. Plans to demolish and replace Leonardtown and surrounding areas are not part of the current plans, but could be added in the future. Within the current area, the plan is to first develop the area closest to the Route 1/Paint Branch intersection, as that will be the first to be empty, and the area closer to the Power Plant/Service Building will be built out later.

C-DC strongly believes in smaller street blocks and good sight lines from the exterior. They were critical of the large blocks in the FP plans and the unbroken façade that had been proposed for the Route 1 frontage. The concept sketch shows one new east-west street north of Rossborough, and 3 new north-south streets in the development. Additional pedestrian/bike only routes will further break up the buildings. The centerpiece of the development is a new open space/town square, roughly one city block in size, towards the northern tip of the development. The northern focus of the development is apparently motivated by the development schedule and by the noise of the power plant. This also means that the new center of activity will be as far as possible from College Park’s existing downtown, and surrounded by major roads, green spaces, and parking lots. It’s not clear how this could foster synergistic development of a unified downtown College Park.

Rossborough Lane will be kept wide, to allow for Purple Line trains.

The concept designs included a variety of mid-rise buildings, with residential only on the east of the project and a mix of retail/office and residential on the west side of the project. As in the FP design, C-DC plans an anchor hotel at the corner of Route 1 and Paint Branch Parkway. Plans for the retail/office component were not yet developed. The developers made the standard nods to a mix of national and local retailers, but it’s not clear whether they had thought through the reasons why so many businesses fail in College Park. Amenities for childcare and other family-attracting features were not yet in the plans.

The housing plans sounded like a departure from the FP plans. Instead of a mix of market-rate and graduate student specific housing, C-DC only has plans for market rate housing (i.e., catering only to those precious young professionals and undergraduates with deep-pocketed parents, but no graduate students). The emphasis on bringing a year-round graduate student population into the center of College Park was a well-conceived part of the university’s original vision, and it’s disappointing to see this idea dropped. UMD is currently working to provide 650 graduate beds on East Campus through a state bond, but details on that project have yet to emerge.

The Birchmere Music Hall still appears in the concept plans, but it remains unclear whether this part of the development will move ahead.

The C-DC team emphasized their seriousness about sustainable building practices, and noted that around a third of their staff are LEED-certified. They claim to have a record of innovation in the use of sustainable materials. Many readers will be eager to see more details in this area.

Moving Forward
The plan to first build out the northernmost tip of the development is questionable from the perspective of integrating College Park, but it does suggest that C-DC is eager to move ahead quickly. They plan to seek public tax increment financing for some aspects of the project (see RTCP’s TIF 101 guide here). That process has the potential to delay the project, depending on the politics of the new Baker-led PG County Council.

No specific plans for future meetings or updates were given at the meeting, but you can read about them here as soon as they are available.